Beirut blasts: A sign of lax security?

Rescuers and military policemen work on the site of a double suicide bombing outside Iran's embassy in Bir Hassan neighbourhood in southern Beirut. (AFP)

Two detonations outside the Iranian Embassy Tuesday morning signaled the first attack on an embassy in Beirut since the U.S. Embassy was hit by a car bomb 30 years ago. The two blasts killed at least 25 people, including the Iranian Embassy’s cultural attaché and wounded over 150 in the mostly residential area of Jnah.

“I heard gunfire then an explosion,” said a man, in his 30s, who worked in a residential building nearby but refused to give his name. Local security sources said a suicide bomber on a motorcycle drove toward the embassy before detonating the explosives strapped to him. As a crowd gathered around the blast, a second suicide bomber in a car sped toward the crowd and detonated a 100kg bomb.

Residential buildings surrounding the Iranian Embassy were badly damaged, as glass from windows and leaves from trees littered the street. Blood was strewn over parts of the street and sidewalk. The wounded and dead were quickly removed from the scene and Lebanese security sources closed down the area.

Shortly after the blast, Lebanese political movement “Amal” deployed foot soldiers to cordon off the area. Teenagers with green cloth tied loosely around their necks stood a few meters apart in front of the “Amal” bureau just a few meters down the road from the Iranian Embassy. Other armed “Amal” members donning black shirts and green armbands shut off the road to cars, only letting ambulances through.

Syrian conflict spillover

A group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed credit for the double suicide operation. The group, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Lebanon, has previously claimed to launch rockets into Israel from Lebanon.

The group’s leader Sirajeddine Zarakat wrote on Twitter that the attacks would continue until Iran removes its forces from Syria and its partisans are let free from Lebanese jail. He also confirmed that the attack was a double suicide operation.

Groups in Syria and Lebanon have regularly denounced Iran and Hezbollah for their continued support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and their involvement on the ground that has led to a number of military defeats for the opposition.

Media has reported that a long pending battle in Syria’s Qalamoun mountains is now underway with the Syrian Army heavily shelling opposition forces there.

“Whenever Jihadists are killed in Syria, they're going to try to do something in Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. Khashan said that the Iranian embassy was targeted due to their involvement in the Syrian civil war and that this would give Iran’s closest Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, an alibi to continue their involvement next door.

No heavy security

In regards to the embassy’s security, locals said embassy guards protected the embassy, but that security was by no means heavy.

“The security procedures around the embassy were very normal, like in front of every institution. The roads are open,” said Qassem Kassir, a political analyst with knowledge of the area.

Another fellow who works nearby as a TV producer, but asked his name be withheld for security and privacy reasons, said: “I passed by that road with my wife this morning. There was only one guard on duty that I could see. It looked very easy to get through.”

A security officer on scene, when asked if there had been security before the blast replied simply, “There was none.”

Other locals interviewed said the area had always been safe and not in need of extra security, even despite Iran’s involvement in Syria and the resentment that might draw from supporters of the Syrian opposition. They said that the “Amal” office nearby was ready to handle security should any incidents take place. Locals said the embassy was equipped with a number of CCTV cameras though and that officials at the embassy would be able to study video recordings for more information.

Kassir said that following the blast it would be normal for the embassy to increase their security since the situation is “worrying and dangerous.”

“The Iranian Embassy has a concrete wall so anything that happens can't damage the embassy from inside,” said Khashan. “The goal was to send the Iranians a message that we can hit you inside of your own home. If they can't get to important places, they will choose a soft target.”

Also on the scene, clearing debris from the site, were a few men with Hezbollah armbands. Al-Arabiya News contacted the Hezbollah Press Office and was redirected to Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar. A representative for Ammar however said he wouldn’t be able to speak to the press today.

The attack was denounced by many Lebanese figures including caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and former PMs Saad al-Hariri and Fouad Saniora. For his part, Mikati said the attack was a “cowardly, terrorist act aimed at inciting tensions in Lebanon and using the country as an arena to send political messages.”

Other analysts however believe a strong message was sent by the attack. “Lebanon is a battlefield now,” Kassir. “The message is for Iran. There's a battle in the region, so blasts [in Lebanon] are always possible.”

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Justin Salhani is a journalist based in Lebanon who has written for various websites and publications. He can be found on Twitter at @JustinSalhani

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:42 - GMT 06:42
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